Does it contradict Biblical teachings to believe in widely accepted scientific theories like evolution and the Big Bang? To what extent can Christians welcome science into their life without sacrificing piety?
These questions will be central during Evolution Weekend, an annual event initiated by the Clergy Letters Project (CLP) where pastors from around the country in pan-denominational congregations will deliver sermons and hold events discussing the convergence of science and religion.
In its seventh year, over 500 congregations will participate in the event from all 50 states and 10 foreign countries. CLP says the goal is to "elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic, and to show that religion and science are not adversaries."
Congregation leaders participating in the event are given free reign over the content and delivery of their sermons; many choose to address the questions of creation and evolution, while others talk about the need for cooperation between the religious and scientific communities.
Pastor Philip Compton, Ph.D., of the United Methodist Church in Ada, Ohio told Evolution Weekend gatherers in 2005 that science and religion are not mutually exclusive and so embracing scientific theories while pondering theological questions will only develop a stronger faith in God.
"Science cannot replace God or theology or religion. In fact many noted scientists are sincere Christians – with no apparent conflict," Compton said. "A belief in God is not necessarily incompatible with an understanding and loyalty to scientific assumptions and methods.
"When I have a question of 'How,' I go to my science text. But when I have a question of 'Why,' I will not find the answer in a science text, but in scripture and prayer," he said.
A major misconception that both religious and secular people have about religion is that practitioners – particularly Christians – must believe every facet of the Bible literally. When discussing stories like Jonah and the whale, Noah's ark and even Adam and Eve, many Christians feel unequipped to debate the scientific feasibility of such events.
And so some pastors use Evolution Weekend to lessen the burden on Christians who feel inadequate debating these stories.
The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey DeYoe of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Palm Coast, Fla., told his congregation during the 2006 Evolution Weekend that looking to the Bible for literal answers about creation is foolish and will prove unsatisfactory.
"(It) must strike us at some point or another that if it is through literal devotion to stories such as these that we believe we are going to find true knowledge of our Creator, we are going to be sadly disappointed," DeYoe said.
"This is the sin of Creationism (aka Intelligent Design) in Church and Society today: The belief that through the limited storytelling of an ancient people we think we have in our possession everything God wants us to know," DeYoe said, adding that we must trust science because science operates from complete objectivity in its pure pursuit of knowledge.
The Rev. Mary Moore Gaines of the St. James Episcopal Church in San Francisco agreed in her sermon that religion needed to exist alongside science, not in place of it.
"What brings clarity, for me at least, is to realize that while science and religion are not the same, they are compatible," Gaines said. "These are complicated issues and we Christians must be clear in our thinking and in our ability to articulate the symbiotic relationship between religion and science."
Gaines said she believes God and faith begets science; that is, science can help us discover what God created.
"The Genesis stories and evolution are ways to describe the unfolding and ongoing story of creation," Gaines said. "Both shine light in the darkness of ignorance. God as creator and Darwin's theory of evolution can exist happily side-by-side. The problem comes when people take the Bible story literally, claim it is science, and insist on teaching it as science."
Although many pastors choose to assure their congregation that questioning science and faith will ultimately yield a deeper connection to God, some, like the Rev. Hope Douglas J. Harle-Mould of United Church of Christ in Seneca, N.Y., choose to direct their sermons towards addressing God's hand in creation and evolution directly.
Harle-Mould lead a prayer in 2009 beginning, "Creator God, You who lit the fires of the Big Bang, who set the galaxies spinning, who exploded great stars to form the complex molecules that formed our solar system and our bodies, You who guided evolution toward greater consciousness and who today is actively creating still: Open us to the awe and wonder of the abundance and beauty and diversity of life on this, our home planet."
The organizers of Evolution Weekend say the goal is not to prove anything, but to keep conversation open about religion in science. Gaining some of the objectivity out of which many scientists operate is key to developing a deeper faith and understanding about the world at large.
Evolution Weekend will take place Feb. 10-12 although some congregations will begin discussions this weekend.